- Hordern, Marsden
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
HMS BEAGLE was one of his small surveying ships and on her return to England in 1836 from surveying Patagonia he planned her Australian assignment. Before doing so he consulted the man who knew more about Australia’s coasts than anyone in the world, Phillip Parker King. And King counselled Beaufort well.
BEAGLE had a proven ship’s company and experienced officers and Beaufort kept many of them together.
John Clements Wickham, her former first lieutenant, was promoted to the rank of Commander and became her new Captain, and John Lort Stokes, a tough and tireless worker, was advanced from mate to lieutenant and appointed Wickham’s assistant survey. Wickham ran a tight ship, but of the two it was Stokes who was stimulated by discovery and charting the unknown for there he was following his star.
BEAGLE commenced work on the north-west coast of Australia in 1838 and in 1841 when Wickham was invalided with dysentery and returned to England, command of BEAGLE and the survey itself, passed into the capable hands of Stokes. In 1770 Cook had discovered most of Australia’s east coast. By 1798 Bass and Flinders in the tiny Norfolk had circumnavigated and proved the insularity of Van Diemen’s Land. In 1801 Flinders in INVESTIGATOR, had discovered and charted the south coast of Australia from the islands of St Peter and St Francis at the head of the Great Australian Bight to Encounter Bay in South Australia, large sections of the Great Barrier Reef, and a route through Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Next on the scene after Flinders was Phillip Parker King, boy veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and in 1817 a lieutenant in his twenties. King’s amazing explorations, surveys and circumnavigations of Australia between 1817 and 1822, have earned for him the title `Father of Australian Hydrography’. But even King left sections of the coast unknown and did not find a hoped-for Australian Nile. That would become an assignment for BEAGLE.
Beaufort drew up meticulous instructions for her voyage. She would fill in the blank spaces on the chart left by Flinders and King and carry out other specific tasks.
She was to proceed first to Roebuck Bay, near the present site of Broome. Its deep indentation, its great tides and the existence of another unexplored gulf to the north, seen by Dampier and King, and today named ‘King Sound’, led to the supposition that Dampier Land was a large island. If so, what lay behind it? Perhaps a mighty river fed by the eternal snows of Austral Himalayas flowing through millions of acres of forest and pasture, their riches waiting for the markets of the world. BEAGLE must find out.
And always in the mind of the hydrographer was that fearful spectre of a ship packed with immigrant women and children, racing through a wild night towards some uncharted rock in Bass Strait. A painstaking chart of that graveyard would be required of BEAGLE.
Torres and Endeavour Straits, now becoming trade routes, still held lurking dangers. The Gulf of Carpentaria called for further investigation as did the infamous Houtman’s Abrolhos, lying low athwart the route from Swan River to India, and pounded by the Indian Ocean swells.
All these required laborious examination by oar and sail, leadline, compass, sextant and theodolite. And there was other harvests waiting to be reaped in fields of natural history, anthropology and minerology. With no risk of hostile topsails on the horizon BEAGLE got on with the job. This was the Pax Britannica at work.
In 1838 she worked from Swan River north to the Kimberly coast of West Australia and up to the Prince Regent River. By March 1839 she had completed the most accurate chart that had ever been made of Eastern Bass Strait and re-charted Port Phillip. From May 1839 to January 1840 she was surveying and exploring from Sydney northward and westward around Torres Strait to the Indian Ocean shores and south to Swan River.
This most fruitful cruise resulted in the discovery of the Adelaide and Victoria Rivers and Port Darwin which Stokes named for his young friend Charles – just for friendship’s sake long before Darwin became a towering scientific figure. April to September 1840 saw her work completed in the Houtman’s Abrolhos, Monte Bello and Depuch Island areas and her return to Sydney for a refit.